The ghosts of Kuldhara

As we walked around the beautiful Jaisalmer Fort led by our  energetic guide, a proud Rajput, Devi Singh, his narratives about Satyajit Ray’s iconic film which made this fort so famous kept us mesmerized. Each nook and corner of this living fort had an important, rather interesting anecdote to share. Very matter of factly, in the midst of this engrossing walk, he asked us if we have heard of a haunted village not too far away. Time was short, but the narrator in him made us change some of the priorities in the itinerary. A little over 20 kms. To the West of Jaisalmer lies Kuldhara. As we drove on the dusty road that leads to it, we notice the scant presence of human existence. The land around was barren, there were a few hardy goats munching on whatever little vegetation grew. We reached the ruined gates of the town even before Google announced we had arrived at our destination. Sitting atop what looked like an abandoned village well we met shepherd boy Kambir, clad in a blue, worn out kurtapyjama. His enthusiastic greeting made us stop and talk to him. A little away, sitting down hunched in one corner of a shady branch, was Najju Debi, about 70 years of age. That life has not been easy for both was obvious. Kambir would be a little over 11 years old and belongs to the Banjara (nomadic) tribe. He lives with his large family, comprising of his parents, grandparents and five siblings in the next village, before they move on in search of greener pastures, literally. “Sir ji, I can tell you about this haunted village,” said Kambir after we shared some of the food and fruit juice we had carried, the juice was what attracted him more. And could we have not listened to him? To Kambir’s ballad-like account with no full-stops, we added a few more sources to get to know the story somewhat. But the mystery remains. In an era of feudalism, of powerful kings and ministers about 200 years ago, Kuldhara was home to the Paliwal Brahmins. It was a thriving center of the community who, peculiarly, unlike their usual occupation, were actually traders and farmers here. The settlement which had some 84 villages was abandoned almost overnight as the villagers mysteriously left their home in Kuldhara. He was hell-bent on having the girl and told the villagers that if they came in his way he would levy huge taxes on them. Fearing the wrath of the Diwan, the residents of the entire village fled one dark night, as the legend goes, leaving behind their homes and everything within them. Kuldhara was abandoned by its very own people. For generations now, no one knows where the Paliwals have resettled. All that is known is they cursed the town when they left – that no one would ever be able to settle down in Kuldhara again. We left him with another bottle of orange juice and went into the village. We walked around the lonely place. There were other tourists too. A few courting couples posed romantically against the sandstone homes, lost in their own world. The buildings, including homes, temples and other structures found almost intact all across the town gave it a spooky air. The roads are wide and connect to a drainage system and the walls have inscriptions written in Devnagiri. The houses are probably almost in the same condition as they were left behind by their inhabitants. As I climb the steps of one such home, I could see the entire expanse of the village. I spot a little temple amidst a cluster of homes. I walked up the stairs, were still quite intact. Its walls have small niches that once held tiny lamps. Somebody had recently pasted a few old calendar posters of prominent Hindu deities. It had surely seen better times when the family or probably the entire community gathered to pray and bond together. Probably drought conditions and the difficult terrain made the people move out and over the years the story was romanticized. We will never know for sure. But yes, the ravages of time. I go back to my English class in high school where our teacher taught us Shelley’s Ozymandias, which conveys a message that everything in this world is time-bound and not immortal. Even the mighty and the powerful cannot escape from the ravages of time.

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch faraway…

Somehow, there was an urge to not stand there for too long and get back to the real world. As the sun sets across the sand dunes, the gates of Kuldhara are closed by the locals of the neighboring village. People believe that ghosts of Kuldhara still haunt the place. Kuldhara stands desolate and an eerie silence prevails all around. As we come out, Najju Debi was still waiting. Along with some money, what she wanted was the bottle of water we carried. Her frail, weather-beaten hands clutched the precious bottle. Kambir was back to the herd he was in charge of. There was not much time he could afford to waste. “Did he go to school?” No. “Did any of his siblings go to one?” No. Everywhere the parched earth cried.

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